Megs and I froze on my front step.
We’d seen the notices on our walk home, pinned to every door, fluttering in the chill winter breeze: white butterflies tacked down, wishing to fly free.
It was better to think of them that way, like butterflies.
Because they also looked like white flags of surrender.
“Did you get one?” I asked, craning my neck to check two doors down, where Megs lived.
I looked at her, my best friend and opposite-twin, her dark braids mirroring my light ones. She realized the edge in her tone. It had snuck in, at least once a day, since her father had left to fight. Been ordered to fight.
It’s not you she’s mad at.
Her bright blue eyes, watering in the cold, took me in. A smile came to them as one appeared across her pink, chapped cheeks. “Come on, let’s see what mine says.” She offered her hand, led me past the Hellers’ between us, to her own house. “See, we’re assigned together! Whatever it is, it won’t be so bad, Mathilde.”
“But—why do we need shelter assignments?”
Mother, waiting for me to get home, opened our front door. She saw me and smiled, lifted her hand to wave. But then she spotted the notices across the street and turned to read ours. She grew very still; her smile disappeared.
Mrs. Heller opened her door, too. She read her notice, looked around at all of us. Her face swelled like a boiled red potato.
“Now you’re going to be living at my house?”
“Living? How long do you expect us to be down there?” Mother asked.
“Who knows? Maybe forever. But your family’s not to become a burden on our family; you’d better send over some food stores—”
“Food stores? I’m not sending my food stores over to your basement. You’ll eat them!”
“Are you accusing me of being a thief?”
“That’s what you’ve implied I am!”
My little sisters came to the doorway: Kammi, who had beaten me home from school, and Tye, blouse untucked and short braids falling out. I raced home, Megs at my heels. “Come on,” I said to my sisters. “Come inside.”
I quickly shut the door. The house was cold. There wasn’t enough fuel for fires during the day anymore.
“Here, Tye, let’s find your sweater.” A sweater that had once been mine, and then Kammi’s, and now had patches on the elbows.
“Catch me!” Tye shrieked.
She didn’t need to know that I felt wobbly, that we might be headed to live in the basement next door. I chased her into the living room, grabbed her by the ankles, and held her upside down.
“I’m upside down! I’m upside down!” She giggled.
Poor Tye had never known the world right-side up. Before Tyssia decided they wanted all of it for themselves; before they took over the Skaven lands, before they joined with Erobern.
Before they were coming for us.
Mother came in and slammed the door. I dropped Tye, who rolled away, laughing.
“Why are we going to the Hellers’ basement?” I asked Mother.
“Ours is too shallow.”
“Too shallow for what?”
I followed her into the kitchen, where she loaded up a box with tins and jars. There hadn’t been that much in the pantry to begin with. Don’t grumble, don’t grumble, I told my stomach as the shelves emptied.
Mother handed me the heavy box, adjusting the red scarf around my neck and freeing my braids. “Take this next door.”
Was she afraid, like Mrs. Heller, that we were going to have to live in their basement?
For how long?
I looked at Megs, who shrugged.
“Why don’t you do your homework at Megs’s house?” Mother said.
“Why is she mad at you? You didn’t ask the government to send those notices.”
And wouldn’t Mrs. Heller want to help us, if there was some kind of emergency? She was our neighbor. Kammi played with her daughter.
Mother smiled, grazed her knuckle down my cheek. “Don’t you worry. Run along.”
Megs and I walked to the Hellers’ in silence. Megs knocked. When Mrs. Heller answered, she looked less like a boiled potato, but she took our box with a huff and slammed the door.
“It’s probably like a drill,” Megs said as we walked to her house. “Like fire drills at school. We practice those all the time, and have we ever had a fire? No. We’ll probably never have to go to her stupid basement.”
She ripped down her family’s notice on the way through the door. She stopped to look me in the eye.
“Even if we do, we’ll be together. Whatever happens, I’ll be with you.”
Copyright © 2016 by Suzanne LaFleur. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.